Expected Council Action
In September, Council members expect to receive their regular monthly briefings on the chemical weapons and humanitarian tracks in Syria.
In addition, early in the month the Council is expected to exchange letters with the Secretary-General regarding the recommendations to establish a UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Key Recent Developments
The adoption of resolution 2235 on 7 August to establish the JIM followed almost four months of P5 negotiations, largely between Russia and the US. Recommendations for the JIM’s establishment and operation were due by 27 August for the Council to respond to within five days. The JIM mandate will differ from the existing OPCW fact-finding mission in that the JIM is able to attribute responsibility for use of chemical weapons. The OPCW fact-finding mission can only determine whether chemical weapons have been used. It has found that chlorine bombs have been dropped from helicopters, noting that only the government has aerial capacity and only rebel-held areas were targeted.
Regarding the military situation, aerial bombardment of eastern Ghouta outside Damascus by government forces significantly increased over the course of July and August to an almost daily rate. On 16 August, in one of the deadliest raids since the outbreak of the war, Syrian government warplanes carried out two air strikes (the second to target first responders) on a marketplace in Douma, a besieged area in eastern Ghouta, reportedly killing more than 100 people and injuring more than 200 others. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien was in the country at the time and said during a press conference in Damascus on 17 August that he was “particularly appalled” by the attack and “horrified by the total disrespect for civilian life”. Such attacks on civilians “are unlawful, unacceptable and must stop”. After his return to New York, he briefed Council members on 19 August under “any other business” on the Douma attacks. O’Brien briefed the Council again on 27 August, presenting the Secretary-General’s report that said indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks by all parties to the conflict, including through the use of barrel bombs and other explosive weapons in populated areas, remain by far the primary cause of civilian deaths and injuries.
On 27 August, a 48-hour ceasefire mediated by Iran and Turkey was declared between rebel forces and Syrian forces, including the government-allied Lebanese militia Hezbollah, in Zabadani (the last rebel-held town near the Lebanese border) and in a pair of Shi’ite Muslim villages in Idlib province. A similar ceasefire had collapsed earlier in the month—reportedly over proposed population transfers of Sunnis and Shias between the three towns, other reports have characterised this as “civilian evacuation”.
Following Turkey’s agreement to allow the US to use the Incirlik airbase last month, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has taken control of more territory in northern Syria bordering Turkey where the US-led coalition is planning for an “ISIS-free zone”—in particular near rebel-held Marea where ISIS has reportedly launched shells laced with chemical agents against civilians on 21 August. On 23 August, the US and Turkey concluded talks on the launch of joint air operations to flush ISIS fighters from this zone. For the anti-ISIS coalition this operation has the potential to cut ISIS’s supply routes and transit points for foreign fighters across the Turkish border. For Turkey, it has the added benefit of blocking Kurdish control of contiguous areas in Syria along its border. While Kurdish forces have been instrumental allies in the anti-ISIS fight in Syria, the US and Turkey have agreed they will not have a role in the “ISIS-free zone”. To date Turkey’s focus on anti-ISIS strikes has been limited in comparison to its strikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in northern Iraq.
On the political track, the Council adopted a presidential statement on 17 August expressing its support for the work of UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, in particular the approach he presented to the Council on 29 July for his office to facilitate intra-Syrian working groups to address ways to implement key elements of the Geneva Communiqué. (The Geneva Communiqué is political transition plan agreed in June 2012 that has been continually stymied over the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.) The working groups are expected to start discussions in September with the aim of generating a “Syrian-owned framework document” on the implementation of the Geneva Communiqué, in particular to lead to the establishment of a transitional governing body. However, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) has already expressed reservations, saying that de Mistura’s plan is not sufficient to address the need for a transitional government. On 25 August, Assad characterised de Mistura as biased. In response to remarks made by US President Barack Obama on 5 August that “Russia and Iran recognise that the trend lines are not good for Assad,” he added that he was confident of Iran and Russia’s ongoing support.
The recent agreement between the US and Russia on Syria-related outcomes in the Council in August came amid a flurry of diplomacy surrounding the conflict. On 3 August, US Secretary of State John Kerry, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met in Doha, Qatar, and, according to media reports, acknowledged the need for a political solution and the important role to be played by opposition groups in reaching that solution. A newly appointed US Special Envoy for Syria met with officials in Moscow and Riyadh in late August and also travelled to Geneva to meet with de Mistura.
Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem travelled to Tehran on 4 August for meetings with Iranian and Russian officials; during the visit, he said that efforts to fight ISIS should be coordinated with the Assad regime. On 5 August, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian announced that Iran would present a peace plan for Syria to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after detailed discussions between Tehran and Damascus are completed. The plan will reportedly be based on a four-point initiative presented to the UN last year by Iran calling for an immediate ceasefire, formation of a national unity government, constitutional protection for minorities and supervised elections. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with Assad in Damascus on 12 August to discuss the proposal. On 14 August, at the invitation of Russia, the head of the SNC, Khaled Khoja, held talks with Lavrov in Moscow, where, according to media reports, Khaled insisted Assad must go.
On 24 August, Chile and the US organised an Arria-formula meeting on ISIS’s targeting of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons, as part of ISIS’s ongoing track record of deliberately targeting minorities and vulnerable populations. Earlier in the month ISIS had kidnapped 230 Christians from Homs.
Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura briefed Council members on 25 August on her 16-29 April visit to the Middle East, including to Syria where, she said, sexual violence is being committed strategically, in a widespread and systematic manner, and with a high degree of sophistication by most parties to the conflict in Syria—both state and non-state actors. On 28 August, Council members issued a press statement that condemned the use of sexual violence committed, including as a method or tactic of warfare, in Syria and Iraq.
On 24 August, the 1267/1989 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee met to discuss the report of its Monitoring Team on the implementation of resolution 2199 on how illegal oil exporting, traffic of cultural heritage, ransom payments and external donations support the operational capacity of ISIS and Al-Nusra. The report suggests that the measures tackling illegal oil trade have so far had a limited impact, given the ability of ISIS to extract benefits at the different stages of the value chain, from selling crude oil at the well-head to levying fees at checkpoints, exchanging crude oil for refined products and selling the latter to the local population. Some humanitarian actors, such as OCHA, have raised concerns regarding the unintended consequences for the local population of some of these measures, including the reluctance of some humanitarian organisations to operate in those contexts, given fears of legal consequences in case of an inadvertent diversion of humanitarian supplies to a listed entity.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 18 August, the spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on the 16 August Douma attack which emphasised that any intentional direct attack on civilians or civilian objects and the use of indiscriminate weapons in densely populated areas are serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law and may amount to war crimes for which individuals can be held criminally responsible. The statement reiterated a call to the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the ICC. The Human Rights Council considered the tenth report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria (A/HRC/30/48) during its 30th session.
The main issue for the Council—in the fifth year of a war that has exacted a death toll of 250,000, injured one million and displaced half of the Syrian population—is to find ways to exert effective leadership, particularly in supporting a cessation of violence and resuscitating efforts for a political solution.
The Council has many tools at its disposal—such as imposing an arms embargo or targeted sanctions, referring Syria to the ICC or authorising a no-fly zone to deter Syria from using its aerial capacity—but P5 divisions have made it impossible for the Council to fulfil its responsibility for maintaining international peace and security in the case of Syria.
The recent cooperation and apparent show of unanimity on Syria amongst the P5 in August, with the adoptions of a resolution on the chemical weapons track and presidential statement on the political track, in tandem with the successful conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, may open space for Council members to move forward on a range of other initiatives. This could include a resolution drafted by France and the UK on indiscriminate attacks, including the government’s use of barrel bombs.
Council and Wider Dynamics
Despite overwhelming indications that various resolutions threatening consequences for lack of implementation have continually been breached, it is unlikely that Council members will push for follow-up measures, such as targeted sanctions or another attempt at an ICC referral. The assumption that Russia would veto any such action specific to the government remains a deterrent.
The great majority of Council members think that the UN-OPCW JIM has the potential to allow the Council to receive explicit information about the actors responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. However, none believe that this would be sufficient to bridge divisive Council dynamics in order to adopt the “further measures” that have been persistently threatened for non-compliance with Security Council resolutions, such as targeted sanctions or an arms embargo.
During negotiations on the presidential statement adopted on 17 August, Venezuela broke silence, arguing that the language on the need for a political transition went beyond the Syrian constitution. (The Syrian constitution contains a number of clauses which could make it difficult for many opposition members to be part of a transition government.) After several days of negotiations between Venezuela and P5 members, the statement was adopted without Venezuela’s proposed changes, but addressing the Council after the adoption, Venezuela dissociated itself from the consensus.
France is the penholder on Syria overall. Jordan, New Zealand and Spain lead on humanitarian issues. In practice, however, most texts are agreed between Russia and the US prior to seeking agreement by the broader Council.
|Security Council Resolutions|
|7 August 2015 S/RES/2235||This was a resolution that requested the UN Secretary-General and OPCW Director-General to recommend the establishment and operation of a UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria|
|6 March 2015 S/RES/2209||This resolution condemned the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine, without attributing blame; stressed that those responsible should be held accountable; recalled resolution 2118; and supported the 4 February 2015 decision of the OPCW.|
|27 September 2013 S/RES/2118||This resolution was adopted unanimously by the Council and required the verification and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, called for the convening of the Geneva II peace talks and endorsed the establishment of a transitional governing body in Syria with full executive powers.|
|17 December 2014 S/RES/2191||Renewed authorisation for cross-border humanitarian access until 10 January 2016.|
|14 July 2014 S/RES/2165||This resolution authorised cross-border and cross-line access for the UN and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria without state consent and established a monitoring mechanism for 180 days.|
|22 February 2014 S/RES/2139||This resolution demanded that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, allow humanitarian access in Syria across conflict lines, in besieged areas and across borders and expressed the intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance.|
|Security Council Presidential Statement|
|17 August 2015 S/PRST/2015/15||This was a statement that expressed support for UN Special Envoy in Syria.|
|Security Council Meeting Records|
|27 August 2015 S/PV.7513||This was a meeting on humanatarian situation.|
|17 August 2015 S/PV.7504||This was a meeting to adopt a presidential statement supporting UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura’s efforts.|
|20 August 2015 S/2015/651||This was Secretary-General’s report on humanitarian situation.|
|28 July 2015 S/2015/572||This was Secretary-General’s report on chemical weapons.|